What would it be – blink or wink?
Monday night in Montreal being the 28th anniversary of the most famous wink in NHL history, there was talk everywhere of the Stanley Cup-winning 1993 Canadiens and the team’s unlikely parallels to the surprising 2021 Canadiens.
Perhaps a bit early for such talk, but what else is there to do in this pandemic?
The 1992-93 Montreal Canadiens were not expected to win the championship. They struggled in their opening round against the Quebec Nordiques but slowly found themselves in a spring of overtime shockers. They won a remarkable 10 games in overtime as they moved through the Nordiques, Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders and then met Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup final.
Game 4 of that series was held on June 7, 1993, the Kings pressing desperately in the final minutes to force overtime. With one minute and one second left, Canadiens’ goaltender Patrick Roy stole what seemed a certain goal from the Kings’ Tomas Sandstrom.
As Sandstrom skated away, he looked back in astonishment – and Roy smiled and winked at him. The moment perfectly caught on camera.
It was the last time a Canadian team won the Cup.
This surprising spring playoffs, the 2021 Montreal team came back from being down 3-1 in games to defeat the highly ranked Toronto Maple Leafs. There have been overtime victories and – most important of all – the stellar play of Canadiens goaltender Carey Price has reminded fans of Roy at the top of his game.
“I was 20 years old, so I remember well ’93,” said Montreal head coach Dominique Ducharme on Monday. “They faced some adversity against Quebec but they came back and got on a roll.”
Montreal forward Paul Byron, who was only four years old that spring, knows of this “legendary team” through old VHS tapes he once watched.
“Pretty cool to have our own,” he said.
They may one day have it, as it would be the Winnipeg Jets blinking first early in overtime as Montreal’s Tyler Toffoli buried a perfect pass from Cole Caufield to win the game 3-2 and the series, sending the Canadiens on to the semi-final round.
No doubt the Jets missed their best player and scoring leader, Mark Scheifele, suspended four games by the league for an ill-advised and brutal attack on Montreal’s Jake Evans at the end of Game 1. Evans ended up with a concussion following the hit moments after he had scored into the empty Winnipeg net.
The coaches and players paid the expected lip service to getting off to a fast start, but only Montreal lived up to its words. Barely seven minutes in the Canadiens went on the power play courtesy of a high-sticking penalty to Jets forward Andrew Copp. The Canadiens took advantage of a miserable clearing attempt from the Winnipeg zone when Montreal defenceman Erik Gustafsson scored on a point shot that somehow made it through a Swiss-cheese screen of players that meant Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck had no chance.
Less than three minutes later, the Jets got their own power-play chance when Montreal defenceman Brett Kulak was called for interference. Their puck control, however, was unimpressive, and but for a nice Price save on Nikolaj Ehlers, they rarely threatened.
Price did show a touch of Roy luck when Winnipeg’s star defenceman Josh Morrissey took a shot through a screen that seemed a certain goal – right up until it ticked off the top of Price’s goal stick.
With less than a minute remaining in the opening period, the Canadiens went up 2-0 when forward Artturi Lehkonen tipped a Kulak point shot into the top far corner of Hellebuyck’s net.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice proved prescient as he had said earlier in the day that “this series is blue paint.” The Jets had previously swept the Edmonton Oilers in four games that featured scoring off the rush, but these games were all about tips and screens and ensuring the goaltenders did not have clear views. Both Montreal goals were scored exactly this way.
“They’ve gotten to ours,” said Maurice, “and we haven’t gotten to theirs.”
The second period, however, would belong to a most unlikely Winnipeg hero, 6-foot-7 lumbering defenceman Logan Stanley. The 23-year-old from Waterloo, Ont., unheralded until June 7, 2021, scored twice in the period to tie the game at two goals apiece.
Stanley’s first goal came less than two minutes in, his long shot from the left point happy that, finally, the Jets were converging on the “blue paint” of Price’s crease. Less than four minutes later, he scored again, this time from the other side after hurdling the boards and entering the play just in time to rifle a second point shot past Price.
In a third period that was as frenetic as much of the previous games had been static, both sides threatened but could not succeed. Both Price and Hellebuyck were up to the high standards they had set earlier in their respective series.
In the overtime, however, it was all Montreal, the final score seemingly inevitable.
“I never would have thought this would go four games,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “I’m just stunned.”
“Kind of feels like nobody believes in us,” said Toffoli, the overtime hero. “The only people we have are ourselves and our fans.”
Are they the 1993 Montreal Canadiens reborn? Not yet.
As head coach Ducharme put it, “We have a long way to go.”
“Nothing yet,” said Canadiens captain Shea Weber. “It’s a step in the right direction, another step towards our ultimate goal.
“But we can’t be satisfied.”
With files from Dylan Earis